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Argentine President set to leave office and a divided nation

It's been a strange couple of weeks in the world of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

She has been accused of conspiring to subvert the course of justice by a special prosecutor, who then turned up dead the day before he was to speak to a congressional committee about his charges.

She has fought back fiercely against his charges, in a series of blog posts, Facebook rants, tweets and a surreal TV appearance in which she warned of plots by rogue spies.

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To round things out, she went on an official trip to China from which she tweeted with enthusiasm about prospects for partnership between the two countries – and then capped it by making a crass and foolish joke mocking the Chinese accent.

Oh, and then, she refused to apologize.

All of it is classic Fernandez de Kirchner: the emotional appeal directly to the people; the erratic, unfiltered communication; and the determined control of the narrative.

It combines for a deeply personal political style that makes the Argentine President one of the world's most enigmatic and intriguing political leaders.

"We produced Cristina: She embodies many Argentine values – everything is tragic, everything is a melodrama," said Laura Di Marco with a rueful laugh. The author of an unauthorized biography of Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner published last year, Ms. Di Marco has spent years watching the President that friend and foe alike call simply "Cristina."

In a country with a history of political upheaval and polarizing figures, Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner may be the most divisive yet. At 61, she is in the last seven months of her second term as president, and by law cannot run in elections later this year. Her critics charge that she may do irreparable harm to the nation before she goes, and call her "la yegua" – literally, "the mare," colloquially, a misogynist slur. Those who love her turn out to demonstrations in the tens of thousands wearing T-shirts that say, "Todos somos yeguas" – We are all mares.

Her legacy will be a country that has emerged fully from the economic crisis of 2001, with a much more solidified middle class – and a weakened currency, a divided society and a party where every candidate is keen to distance themselves from the unpredictable President.

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Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner was elected first with an outright majority in 2007, and then re-elected by an even wider margin four years later, by Argentines who appreciated her program of social inclusion – a universal child-welfare grant, better pensions – combined with a sovereigntist world view and economic pragmatism that has seen this battered economy limp slowly towards better health.

But she has also fought a ferocious battle with the independent media, nationalized key industries and faced a series of corruption and political influence scandals, culminating in the dramatic accusation from the late prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, that she conspired to derail his investigation into the role of Iran in a 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires in which 85 people died.

As president, Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner has nurtured new allies for Argentina, including the leftist governments in the region, such as Venezuela, and others further afield, including Iran and China, which helped prop up the peso with a crucial currency exchange swap. She denies the Nisman allegations – which many jurists in the country say are far-fetched – and says that rogue members of the intelligence services are plotting against her.

Cristina Fernandez was born to a middle-class family near Buenos Aires in 1953. She met and married Nestor Kirchner while they were left-leaning students in law school, and they moved far to the south of the country to practise law when the repression of the military dictatorship was most fierce. Both became active in local, then state, then national politics; Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner gained national prominence first, as an active and articulate senator, but her husband was elected president in 2003.

She was a high-profile first lady, and then Mr. Kirchner stepped aside after a single term so his wife could run as the candidate of Justicialista, the party of the larger-than-life former Argentine president Juan Peron.

The Kirchners were incubated in the Peronist political tradition and Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner draws inevitable comparisons to Eva "Evita" Peron, the first lady who mobilized huge crowds of the poor and ran key government ministries before dying of cancer at 33 (her brief life is immortalized in the musical Evita).

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Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner has said that she and all Argentine women owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Peron, who championed women's suffrage, but she rejects the comparison – she has been elected to office, for one thing. Nevertheless she is a politician in that Peronist style, said Ms. Di Marco. "She is like Evita in this: She is a true believer. Nestor wasn't – he would make deals. But for her, she acts like she has the monopoly on truth, and she believes it."

Like Ms. Peron, who was an actress before her marriage, Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner cultivates a distinctive public image: Rather than seeking to minimize the issue of her gender, as do female leaders in male-dominated political systems such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton – or, closer to home, the low-key presidents of Brazil and Chile, Dilma Rousseff and Michelle Bachelet – Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner opts for hyper-femininity.

She never appears in public without a tumbling mane of glossy auburn hair; her eyes are always ringed in Cleopatra kohl. She wears Chanel suits and jaw-dropping jewellery. Her heels are so high, her nails so long, her eyelashes so thick that she almost seems drawn from Japanese anime.

Sandra Russo, who interviewed the President at length for her biography La Presidenta, describes that as simply her personality – the President confided that she could talk about nail polish and outfits for hours, Ms. Russo said. (In a telling indication of how Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner has reoriented Argentina and cultivated new allies, Ms. Russo's biography has no English translation – but will imminently be published in Chinese.)

But ultra-feminine image notwithstanding, the President wields power in a way that would normally be seen as masculine: She does not build consensus or cultivate allies; she trusts only a tiny circle of confidantes, and has wrangled openly with powerful enemies, including the Clarin group, the largest independent media organization in the country.

In fact, Ms. Di Marco noted, President Fernandez de Kirchner has continued many of the same policies her husband began: "But she is criticized much more, because she is a woman, in a country where the culture of machismo still predominates."

Nestor Kirchner died of a heart attack in 2010, and the President has said she lost her "fortress," the one who protected and advised her. The footage of her standing for hours, entirely alone, one hand on his flag-draped coffin as he lay in state at Congress, fixated the nation and provoked a huge wave of sympathy.

The President works compulsively, never vacations and is not known to have any friends. Her closest confidantes are her children, Florencia, 24, and Maximo, 37, who holds no official position but founded and heads La Campora, the influential far-left youth wing of the branch of Peronism known as Kirchnerismo. She has a small group of advisers who have been with the Kirchners since they began their political careers – they are known as los pinguinos, the penguins, because they are from the far south – but, Ms. Di Marco said, there has not been a cabinet meeting since she took office. "She governs solo."

That mentality does not sit well with critics. "She's crazy," Gabriel Levinas says flatly. Mr. Levinas is a prominent commentator for the Clarin network (which Ms. Kirchner has moved to break up, alleging monopoly, although critics see a naked attempt to silence the free press.) "She lives in a different world, a parallel world, where no one dares give her bad news, even if true, because they want to keep their jobs and access to power."

Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner has been a strong advocate for women's rights during her political career and her government was the first in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage. But she has recently been cultivating her relationship with Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, which may be the source of her more conservative statements on birth control and abortion of late. Ms. Di Marco says the President keeps note of which party members are having extramarital affairs and bumps them down on the political list at election time.

In Argentina today, the true inflation rate is estimated near 30 per cent and the peso is selling for 55 per cent above the posted rate on the black market. Yet until the Nisman affair, Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner enjoyed favourable ratings from at least half of the population. She has used high-profile issues to arouse national sentiments – such as confronting the British government over its "imperialist" presence on the Falkland Islands and railing against the predatory New York hedge funds blocking the country from paying off restructured debt as they tried to collect on millions of credit notes they purchased at steep discount. In fiery speeches, the President said she would never allow the "vultures" to consume the homeland.

"She talks like it is against her personally because it is against her, she's the last line of defence," said Ms. Russo. "If she doesn't use that emotion, there's no narrative. Without the emotion, the Kirchner political project would have ended years ago."

As it stands, the future of the project is uncertain: She has no obvious political successor, although there is speculation that she may push her son into electoral politics soon, or indeed that she may run again herself in four years. "She is in love with power," said Ms. Di Marco. "We can't imagine her if she is not president."

Friends in high places

When Jorge Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner clashed repeatedly. He criticized her for policies such as free contraception and same-sex marriage; she denounced him as the "head of the opposition" and even an apologist for the military dictatorship. But when the archbishop was named Pope Francis in 2013, the President donned a demure black veil and made tracks for the Vatican – apparently aware that she could not afford to be on the wrong side of the wave of pride that swept the country and the genuine affection so many Argentines had for the new pope. He, in turn, channelled the spirit of forgiveness and hosted Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner at his first audience. Today, Argentine media report that she consults him often on matters of governance, cultivating his support, but neither the presidency nor the Vatican have confirmed the coziness.

Health matters

In December, 2012, President Fernandez de Kirchner was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and went into hospital for surgery – but it turned out to be a misdiagnosis. The opposition media alleged conspiracy, perhaps a play for public sympathy – and she appeared at a news conference displaying an ugly scar, making bitter jokes about how she had to show it off or she would be accused of faking.

Then in October of that year, her office announced she was taking a month off – and indeed she disappeared from public view – after bleeding was found in her brain, the result of a fall three months earlier (she had already suffered a scalp wound in a fall in 2011). There was a long period of uncertainty about who was running the country, which further inflamed the opposition. The President's health continues to be a subject of concern: In her Jan. 31 television appearance to respond to the charges involving the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the President spoke from a wheelchair, her foot in a cast, apparently broken during a fall over the Christmas holidays.

Who foots the bill?

In 2008, Argentina's all-important agricultural sector went to war with the President, angry at a new export regime and hike in taxes on the products that were providing the Fernandez de Kirchner government with critical foreign exchange. Farmers blocked roads, dumped produce in the streets and staged mass pot-banging demonstrations that ended in bloody clashes with police. The government was forced to concede.

In 2012, the President nationalized the portion held by Spanish oil firm Repsol in the national energy company YPF, sharply undermining international confidence in her government. But then in 2014, she agreed to repay Repsol $5-billion (U.S.) for its stake. YPF is now courting investors, as Argentina seeks to develop one of the largest shale gas finds in the world – a revenue source for the Kirchner social agenda – but a strong anti-fracking movement is emerging across the country.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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